Saturday was the independence celebration of the world’s brand new country, the Republic of South Sudan. It was a great day marking an end to South Sudan’s long journey that was torn by war for most of its years since Britain had given all of Sudan independence from colonial rule in mid-1950s. Like many things that happened in the mid-20th century that concerned geo-political decisions, it was poorly thought out. Few decisions were made by Britain with regard to ethnic and political realities (think Iraq) of the time.
Sudan, made up of South Sudan, which is mainly Christian and tribal religions, North Sudan, which is mostly Arab Muslim, and Western Sudan, which is compromised of a majority of African Muslims, has been comprised of the three regions. There is not much gel that held the country together. Between the two major wars fought between the North and South since the British left, it is estimated that four million people were killed. In the last war that began in 1983 and ended in 2005, almost 20 percent of the South’s population was killed in the conflict. Although there are no accurate records, it is estimated that almost 200,000 people were taken to the North as war booty, living lives of slaves for years. Many have been returned, some have escaped but it is estimated that at least 35,000 remain in servitude.
Many of these slaves have been returned due to the efforts of one group, Christian Solidarity International, or CSI, operating with the help of Arab slave retrievers and local committees made up of Arab (North) and Dinka (South) citizens. CSI have been the unsung heroes of thousands of lives they have saved. Doing their work and sleeping in tents during their every-other-month visits to the area, they do their work without buildings, without signs proclaiming their work and with very little money. Few know what they have done, but South Sudan President Kiir has recognized their efforts. He worked with them when he was just a commander in the bush during the war.
Why have these slaves been returned? The South wants their family members returned, and the North wants to graze their cattle on Dinka lands during the dry season. Therefore, there has been strong incentive to return these people that were held as previous property and war booty.
On Saturday, the independence celebrations took place in Juba, South Sudan. Much to the shock of much of the world, the president of Sudan Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for war crimes by The Hague, spoke at the celebration. I can only imagine what the U.S. delegation was thinking, given his “wanted” status for war crimes. He spoke of the fact that the North and South would be best united but said he respected the will of the people of South Sudan. It was a conciliatory speech, considering there have been recent bombings by his government in Abyei at the border and slavery and conflict remain.
Although the shock of the day was President Bashir showing up and speaking, the star of the day was President Kiir. If it was a speech for history, President Kiir rose to the task. He thanked all of the people and the world community for all of their support but said, “From today onward, there is no excuse or scapegoat to blame.”
President Kiir outlined that there is much work to do, acknowledging “all indices put us at the bottom of all humanity.” He did what few people would do given all the war and murder that he had seen in his years fighting: He said he was giving amnesty to all of those who had taken arms up against South Sudan.
Saying that South Sudan would be a member of the international community, abiding by its governance and conventions, he aimed to place South Sudan as part of the world’s democratic and law-abiding countries. In addition, President Kiir spoke about his hopes for transparency and accountability, calling it crucial. That is a very tall order in Africa, where much of the way with newly formed countries has been below the table with graft and corruption, not on the table. President Kiir also acknowledged that the eyes of the world “would be upon us.”
South Sudan has a tall order in an almost impossible situation. The world community needs to help, and that includes the news media. I was watching the speech on International CNN. At least seven times during the speech on the bottom crawl, they quoted President Kiir with one phrase: “Some of our suffering is self-inflicted.” This was not what the main message of President Kiir’s speech was, and with the mountain of challenges that the new country of South Sudan has before it, CNN’s characterization of President’s Kiir’s speech was not helpful. Let’s hope both the media and international community pay attention to the message of President Kiir and don’t stir the pot. South Sudan, a brave new country, deserves more.